Please join the Chicks in welcoming Elena Hartwell, author of the Eddie Shoes Mystery Series!
Laughing In The Face of Death
When you kill people for a living, it shouldn’t be a barrel of laughs. But for some of us, humor comes with the territory. I write murder mysteries. Funny ones. This may feel like a contradiction, but for some of us, laughter and murder are the best combination.
As readers, murder mysteries appeal for a number of reasons. First, the puzzle. We love to solve the crime alongside the police detective or the amateur sleuth. The clues lead us from chapter to chapter. We gladly follow the twists and turns that keep us guessing.
Next, there are the characters. We become invested in the protagonist solving the crime, the killer getting caught, and justice being served. We love our hard-drinking hard boiled private eyes, our cat-loving librarians with books in their arms and murder in their hearts, our vicars who know the bad behavior of all the parishioners.
Murder mysteries let us experience the dangerous events in life from the safety of our favorite reading spot. With a cup of coffee in hand, guns can be drawn and bullets can fly, but we won’t spill a drop. As spine-tingling as a good mystery can be, we’re just a slam of the cover away from stopping the action.
But I think there’s more to it than just giving ourselves a good scare. Murder mysteries allow us to experience death. The greatest venture of humankind. The only unknowable experience that each of us will one day discover, alone.
That’s where the humor comes in.
Humor is one of the best traits a living creature can have. And humor does appear across the animal kingdom. My younger horse has a toy he likes to play with. It’s about the size of a soccer ball, with handles. He loves to grab it by the handle and run over to whack my older horse on the neck, in an attempt to get him to play. It cracks me up every time, and I know my horse is laughing right along with me.
But people have a corner on the humor market. There are so many ways to express ourselves through laughs. Whether it’s with language—puns and play-on-words—or physicality, such as pratfalls and the revolving doors of a British Farce, everyone has something they find funny.
Years ago, when I worked primarily in the theatre, I always said, you can’t make ‘em laugh if you can’t make ‘em cry. By that, I meant that the most successful theatrical experiences are those where the audience laughs one moment and cries the next. Or even better, simultaneously. Crying and laughter are the two most similar and the two most different expressions of human emotions. Similar in that it can be hard to tell the difference. The explosion of sound, the tears, the shaking of the shoulders. One often leads to the other as an individual finds a release from sorrow or through laughter, admits to pain.
How often have you found yourself starting in one state, only to dissolve into the other?
But crying and laughter are also direct opposites. The continuum from joy to despair starts with laughter and ends in tears. The highest of all emotional states to the lowest.
But how does an author include humor with murder?
I’m often asked, how do you write funny? My answer is “be born that way.” While this may appear tongue-in-cheek, it’s also true. In my opinion, there are four types of people. Those who appreciate humor and are funny themselves. Those who appreciate humor, but aren’t funny. Those who are funny, but don’t appreciate it, and those who are neither funny, nor take joy in others who are.
If you are the first, and a writer—you can write successful humor. If you’re any of the others, best to leave it to the professionals.
If you are a funny person, writing humor into a murder mystery is the same as any other kind of writing. Today’s murder mysteries are full of complex and dynamic individuals. Readers get attached to characters almost as much as the story itself. With a funny protagonist or side-kick, humor can be the release button after a series of high stake, stressful scenes. Allowing your readers a moment to regroup and take a breath, before they launch themselves back into the seriousness of solving the crime.
Humor does have rules. Funny things come in threes. Less than three, there’s no pattern, so it’s not funny. Four times is overkill. Humor is about balance. Humor can be cruel, so using humor against another character is tricky. You can make a character unlikeable even if they are funny, if they use their humor as a weapon. Humor is also dangerous. Most of us have made a joke at some point in our lives that failed. Often spectacularly and in a very public way. Humor takes courage. Showing humor reveals a vulnerability for the character, and the writer. It’s like a dog rolling over and showing pink belly, will the reader give us a rub? Or take out a bite?
Writing in general is a terrifying experience. When we are reviewed and judged, it’s not just our work that is critiqued, it’s our hearts, our souls, our imagination. Adding humor into the mix is just that much more challenging, because if we fail to make people laugh, we are worse than an unsuccessful writer, we are an unsuccessful human being. We have failed at the fundamental human experience of creating joy.
But that’s the stakes for all of us. When we go out on a ledge and make a joke. We wonder, will our moment of levity be understood as humor? Will it be accepted by our peers for what it’s meant to be? An olive branch held out to the yawning chasm of existential angst? For that’s what laughter really does for us. It holds at bay the fear of being human.
What better addition could there be to writing about death?
After twenty years in the theater, Elena Hartwell turned her dramatic skills to fiction. Her first novel, One Dead, Two to Go introduces Eddie Shoes, private eye. Called “the most fun detective since Richard Castle stumbled into the 12th precinct,” by author Peter Clines. InD’tale Magazine stated, “this quirky combination of a mother-daughter reunion turned crime-fighting duo will captivate readers.” Three Strikes, You’re Dead is the third book in the series, and launched April 1, 2018.
When she’s not writing or coaching writers, her favorite place to be is at the farm with her horses, Jasper and Radar, or at her home, on the middle fork of the Snoqualmie River in North Bend, Washington, with her husband, their dog, Polar, and their cats, Coal Train and Luna, aka, “the other cat upstairs.”
For more information, please visit elenahartwell.com.